Pakistani Christian minority leader J. Salik shouts anti-American slogans as he displays portraits of former recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize and a photograph of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during a protest Wednesday in Islamabad, Pakistan. (B.K. Bangash / AP)
ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani government said Wednesday that three percent of the people killed in U.S. drone strikes since 2008 were civilians, a surprisingly low figure that could alter the highly negative public perception of the attacks.
The number, which was provided by the Ministry of Defense to the Senate, is much lower than past government calculations and estimates by independent organizations. The ministry said 317 drone strikes have killed 2,160 Islamic militants and 67 civilians since 2008.
The attacks are widely disliked in Pakistan, where many people believe they violate the country’s sovereignty and kill too many innocent civilians. The Pakistani government regularly criticizes the drone program in public, even though it is known to have secretly supported at least some of the strikes in the past.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pressed President Obama to end the attacks in a visit to the White House last week, but the U.S. gave no indication it was willing to abandon the attacks, which it views as vital to its battle against al-Qaida and the Taliban.
It’s unclear how the Pakistani public will respond to the new government data, and there was also no indication why it seems to differ so much from past government calculations and outside estimates.
A U.N. expert investigating drone strikes, Ben Emmerson, said earlier this month that the Pakistani Foreign Ministry told him that at least 400 civilians have been killed by the attacks in the country since they started in 2004.
Emmerson called on the government to explain the seeming discrepancy, saying the figures provided by the Foreign Ministry since 2004 indicated a much higher percentage of civilian casualties.
“If the true figures for civilian deaths are significantly lower, then it is important that this should now be made clear, and the apparent discrepancy explained,” Emmerson said in an email sent to The Associated Press.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based in London, has estimated that at least 300 civilians have been killed by drones in Pakistan since 2008, while the Washington-based New America Foundation put the figure at 185 civilians. These estimates are often compiled based on media reports about the attacks.
Pakistan’s figure for total deaths, 2,227, is lower than some other totals, although not to the same degree as its figure for civilians. The Washington-based New America Foundation has a total of 2,651 people killed in drone strikes in Pakistan since 2008, while the Long War Journal website has 2,493.
Compiling the accurate number of civilian casualties from drone strikes is hampered by the danger of traveling to the remote tribal region where they take place.
The U.S. rarely speaks publicly about the CIA-run drone program in Pakistan because it is classified. But officials have insisted in private that the strikes have killed very few civilians and that estimates from the Pakistani government and independent organizations are exaggerated.
Amnesty International called on the U.S. to investigate reports of civilians killed and wounded by drone strikes in Pakistan in a report released earlier this month that provided new details about the alleged victims of the attacks, including a 68-year-old grandmother killed while farming with her grandchildren.
Mamana Bibi’s grandchildren told the London-based rights group that she was killed by missile fire on Oct. 24, 2012, as she was collecting vegetables in a family field in the North Waziristan tribal area, a major militant sanctuary near the Afghan border. Three of Bibi’s grandchildren were wounded in the strike, as were several others who were nearby, the victims said. Bibi’s relatives testified before members of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday.
An even deadlier incident noted by the report occurred in North Waziristan on July 6, 2012. Witnesses said a volley of missiles hit a tent where a group of men had gathered for an evening meal after work, and then a second struck those who came to help the wounded, one of a number of attacks that have hit rescuers, the rights group said.
Witnesses and relatives said that total of 18 male laborers with no links to militant groups died, according to Amnesty. Pakistani intelligence officials at the time identified the dead as suspected militants.
Contrary to the information outlined in the report, the Pakistani government said Wednesday that there were no civilian casualties in 2012. The government said 21 civilians were killed in 2008, nine in 2009, two in 2010 and 35 in 2011. No civilians have been killed so far in 2013, the defense ministry said.
Amnesty did not immediately respond to request for comment on the government data.
The government also said “terrorist” attacks have killed 12,404 people and wounded 26,881 others since 2002, although these figures were disputed by some of the members of the Senate. The government has been battling an insurgency by the Pakistani Taliban, which seeks to topple the country’s democratic system and impose Islamic law. It was not clear if the figure involved only attacks on civilians, or also included attacks on security forces.
A roadside bomb killed five soldiers and wounded three others Wednesday in the South Waziristan tribal area, the Pakistani Taliban’s main sanctuary before the army conducted a large ground offensive in 2009, said military officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military policy.
Also Wednesday, a bomb exploded in a market in southwestern Pakistan, killing two people and wounding at least 20 others, said police official Ahmad Raza. The attack occurred in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province. The province is home to both Islamic militants and separatists who have waged a low-level insurgency against the government for decades.
Associated Press writer Abdul Sattar contributed to this report from Quetta.